Changing public notices would leave electorate out in the cold

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 05:19 AM

Growing up in rural America, my father always preached that “an informed public is better than an uninformed public.”

It’s the same philosophy I try to emulate as the publisher, whether it’s here in North Carolina or in other states where I have been employed. However, it’s frustrating knowing some elected officials and government officials don’t feel the same way. 

At the present time, legislators are trying to change public notice laws — and not for the good of the citizens in rural North Carolina, where most of the homes do not have or can not afford to have internet access. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, recently said he plans to introduce a bill aimed at putting notices online on government web sites instead of in newspapers.

Our newspaper, as well as many others, believe changing public notice laws or scaling back public notices in newspapers is a bad idea and here’s why.

There is no local government web site that can prove it is more popular than its local newspaper or its local newspaper’s web site. Local government control should apply when it come to determining what programs or services a local government will offer but not when it comes to determining how to best inform the public about the business of government. 

Plus, quite frankly, not communicating the business of government leads to mistrust — plain and simple.

Our newspaper publishes legal notices in Rutherford County. For the modest fees they pay, we schedule their notice, provide corrections on what may been incorrectly submitted, publish it in the newspaper and send an affidavit of publication with a bill for services rendered. It is an efficient and reliable way of doing business. It provides a permanent record for both public and private citizens.

If legislators think newspapers are making tons of money publishing legal notices — they’re wrong. It represents less than 2 percent of our total budget. For most government agencies, the bill to publish legal notices probably is less than one percent of their overall budget.

However, the heart and soul of this issue is accountability. If the rules and locations of public notices were different in each jurisdiction, it would lead to a confusing and misleading structure of making government information and announcements available to the public. The average person is stumped as to where to find or obtain public records. They often call the newspaper office for information or advice. This is a reflection of the value and trust the public places in newspapers.

Constant application of the state law is needed so citizens can trust that government information will be readily available regardless of the government entity, this way the public’s right to will be protected fairly. If government entitles are allowed to scale back requirements or place public notices online, Pandora’s box will be opened and I believe it will mark the beginning of the end of the long tradition in this state of providing convenient public notices by governments.

During my 30-year tenure in the newspaper business we’ve had many local residents come to our newspaper office on a city, school district or a county project that was initiated years ago. Because of public notices, they can easily find the information they are seeking.

Another question is how will provisions be made for archiving legal notices? How will the public have access to that information years down the road? Any publisher will tell you they hear from readers who follow the public notices and public records to stay informed about how the county board voted, development projects or a school board decision.

A printed, third-party published notice in the newspaper is permanent and time-stamped. It has protected our system for centuries against all sorts of mischief. It is the cheapest and most well-respected method of protecting the people’s right to know about what their government is doing. Once a public notice is in the newspaper, it can’t be changed, hacked or manipulated. There is a finality in paper and ink.

Tell us how the public will be served knowing that North Carolina has one of the lowest broadband rates in the nation. Rutherford County is an economically depressed county. Most people can’t afford computers. And there are others who simply don’t want a computer.

Which brings us back to the crux of the problem — accountability. Who is going to make government accountable to make certain they tow the line in publishing legal notices if open government isn’t practiced on the pages of the state’s local newspapers?

Local newspapers play a major role in the public’s right to know and reporting on how government spends its money. That money was raised through taxation. Shouldn’t taxpayers have the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent?

Scaling back public notices in newspapers or placing them on a government web site will only spread a cloak of darkness over government and leave the electorate out in the cold.

 

Wanda Moeller is the publisher of The Daily Courier. She can be reached at wmoeller@thedigitalcourier.com.